- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

Jennifer L. Nelson ends her jubilant run as artistic director of the African Continuum Theatre Company on a visually striking but emotionally subdued note with “The Oracle,” an allegorical fable about one woman’s search for knowledge.

Persistent questions land a young African princess named Charlotte (Erika Rose) in a heap of trouble. Her “unrelenting search for clarity” (as she puts it) drives her imperious father crazy and earns the disdain of the council of elders. Unsatisfied with the answers given at home, Charlotte sets off to find the god who made her father king in this tale written by Ed Shockley and based on a George Bernard Shaw story, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God.” It combines elements of “Goldilocks,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “King Lear” and a female-driven version of “The Odyssey.”

Along the way, Charlotte encounters a talking baobab tree, a shamanistic spirit named Juba (Jewell Robinson), death spirits and a fire god who places her in servitude until she finally meets Fate itself. At one point, Charlotte is kidnapped and placed aboard a slave ship, where she endures the Middle Passage before being sold to an itinerant preacher from Philadelphia. Eventually, she escapes and finds her way back to Africa with the help of two gabby earthworms (Erica McLaughlin and Alex Perez).

The various creatures and entities Charlotte meets on her journey are represented mainly by wooden African-mask puppets that are rendered handsomely but wielded clumsily. Straw, clay, cloth and other natural materials also are used for the puppets and the striking outsized costumes.

The puppeteers Mr. Perez and Miss McLaughlin could learn a thing or two about fluid puppet manipulation from the exquisite Mamou Mines troupe, currently in residence at Arena Stage. They seem to be struggling with the creations, especially when moving the enormous baobab tree branches that dominate the beautiful terra-cotta-hued set. The flat, expressionless dimensions of the masks are not put to dramatic use, and the overall lifelessness is underscored by monotone recorded voices for the gods.

“The Oracle” is meant to be family-friendly, but your child would have to be on a first-name basis with Homer (the blind poet, not the Simpson patriarch) to be able to sit through the long-winded, Byzantine dialogue. You don’t know if Mr. Shockley or Mr. Shaw is to blame, but because the latter could be an incorrigible and sophistic windbag, you tend to think the fault may lie in the source material.

Miss Rose is a lively, sinewy presence as Charlotte, although her cavorting and attempts at puckish humor sometimes appear strained. Miss Robinson is obscured by masks, costumes and other folderol through most of the play, but when she reveals her true self near the end, she conveys queenly dignity and sad grace.

The new Sprenger Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center makes quite a sweeping impression, and though “The Oracle” shows off the visual and special-effects capabilities of the space, the production seems small, emotionally stiff and uninspiring.

**

“The Oracle,” by Ed Shockley

Sprenger Theatre, Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE

8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through June 2.

$27 to $37

202/399-7993

www.africancontinuumtheatre.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

Erika Rose is the princess Charlotte, who seeks knowledge in “The Oracle.”

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